Hoyer on Thirty Years of the Americans With Disabilities Act: Let Us Resolve to Protect and Expand Protections For Americans with Disabilities and Ensure Full Equality and Inclusion
By Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer
Thirty years ago today, I watched President George H.W. Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, ushering in a new dawn of opportunity for millions of people who had previously been excluded. The bill he signed was the product of many years of hard work by legislators, by national organizations, and by thousands of grassroots organizers and volunteers — including those with ambulatory impairments who bravely crawled their way up the Capitol steps to raise awareness. The end result was a law that was not only bipartisan but that has been lauded as one of the milestones of civil rights in the history of our country.
I was proud to play a role by sponsoring the Americans with Disabilities Act in the House, taking up the baton from the retiring Tony Coelho and partnering with former Sen. Tom Harkin, who led the effort in the Senate. Working closely with Democratic and Republican colleagues, we built support for the ADA and ensured that it passed with an overwhelming vote of 377–28 in the House and 91–6 in the Senate. When we joined President Bush on the South Lawn of the White House for the signing ceremony on July 26, 1990, we were not Democrats and Republicans — we were Americans who had come together to eliminate unfair barriers for our fellow citizens who deserve an equal chance to make it in America.
The major component of the Americans with Disabilities Act is its requirement for reasonable accommodation for those with physical and mental disabilities. This means that all new buildings must be constructed in a way that is accessible to those with mobility challenges as well as to the hard of hearing and visually impaired. It also banned discrimination against people with disabilities in hiring, employment, education, and other aspects of life. Because of the law, ramps were built alongside stairs, Braille started to appear on public signs, and crosswalks began using curb cuts and the audible aids now ubiquitous in many American cities. The doors of opportunity were now open — and accessible — for millions more of our people.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, though, was not just a breakthrough in access. It changed attitudes as well. Over the past thirty years, people with disabilities have gone from being seen as less-able to being respected as individuals with equal dignity who happen to have differing abilities. The law did as much to open eyes as it did to build ramps.
Unfortunately, in the 1990’s, a series of Supreme Court rulings narrowed the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act in a way that excluded many from its protections. In response, many of us who had worked to pass the law went to work in the years that followed, along with new colleagues and supporters, to pass the ADA Amendments Act in 2008. That year, President George W. Bush signed that bipartisan bill into law, which restored Congress’s original intent of construing the definition of disability broadly and fairly.
Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act stands out not only as a milestone in civil rights law in America and as a global standard but as a symbol of what Democrats and Republicans can achieve when working together for the common good. As consequential as it has been, the Americans with Disabilities Act is only a first step, and there is more to be done to ensure that people with disabilities can access good jobs, live independently in their communities, and reach for the American Dream. As we celebrate its thirtieth anniversary together, let us resolve to continue the spirit of bipartisanship on this issue as we work to protect and expand protections for Americans with disabilities and ensure their full equality and inclusion.